I think it’s about time I did a post on palm oil. It’s an obsession of mine, as many of you well know. In my efforts to be a conscientious consumer, I stumbled upon one of the best kept secrets of the food and cosmetics industries. The fact is, every day items – even “healthy” ones – might be destroying the habitat and permanently endangering species we know and love.
What Is Palm Oil?
Put simply, it is a type of vegetable oil derived from the fruit of the African oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis). Oil palms originally grew in Western Africa, but actually can grow anywhere that’s hot and rainy. These days, almost all palm oil is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia. It’s a pretty massive industry for them: Indonesia produced 20.9 million tonnes of palm oil in 2009, and production increased by over 400% between 1994 and 2004. The 2012 annual palm oil revenue for Indonesia and Malaysia put together was estimated to be in the vicinity of $40 billion.
Why such big business? Palm is one of the few highly saturated vegetable fats, with high oxidative stability and a number of other properties that give it pretty wide ranging potential uses. A recent surge in popularity can also be attributed to its use as a replacement for man-made trans-fats (which got a pretty bad rap in the media, leading to mandatory labelling laws for the latter). Essentially, using palm oil instead of trans-fats makes food look healthier. And, best of all? Palm oil is really, really cheap.
So, Why Does It Suck?
Oh goodness, reasons abound. Let’s start with the vast areas of pristine rainforest that are slashed and burned every year, to make way for new palm oil plantations. Where forests one stood, high yield (read: high profit) oil palm monocultures now grow. This has led to significant losses of natural habitat, for the orang-utan and many other species (the critically endangered Sumatran tiger among them). Not to mention that many orang-utans are killed in the clearing process anyhow – it’s really quite sickening. Large scale deforestation and palm oil harvest is pushing orang-utans and Sumatran tigers (again, among others) to extinction.
If that doesn’t pull at your heartstrings, consider this: even though oil palm plantations can provide employment opportunities and improve infrastructure in otherwise impoverished areas, development usually takes place without consultation or compensation for the indigenous occupants of the land, which gives rise to considerable social conflict and displacement of communities. This is one of many social concerns relating to palm; consider also the extensive use of illegal immigrant labour in Malaysia for harvesting.
And, just to bring it all a teeny bit closer to home, the World Health Organisation has accumulated evidence that the consumption of palm oil is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, with palm oil potentially behaving in the same manner as trans-fats when consumed. Of course, some of us (ahem!) take what the WHO says with a grain of salt anyhow… but it’s still worth mentioning.
The part that bothers me the most – aside from the dead animals and the social upheaval and the heart disease – is that you probably won’t even know whether a product contains palm oil or not. Most countries don’t actually legislate for mandatory labelling; manufacturers can hide palm oil under the name “vegetable oil” or one of the other 170 euphemisms, to keep you from knowing what it is that you’re consuming. This makes it so hard to be a conscientious consumer, it’s not even funny.
What Is It Used For?
Palm oil and derivatives are used in over 50% of all processed products, including baked goods, confectionery, cosmetics, cleaning agents, convenience foods, beverages… Even products labelled “organic”, “natural” or “cruelty free” often contain palm oil, because – technically – palm oil is a natural, vegan product. It’s just that the way it is produced is far from it. I’d imagine there’s at least a few dozen – if not a few hundred – of products in your house containing palm. Think: toothpaste, soap, shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, dishwashing detergent, laundry detergent, “vegetable cooking oil”, chocolates with soft centres, muffins, cakes, biscuits, 2 minute noodles, protein shakes, energy bars, sauces, pre-made stocks and broths, ice creams, pancake mix, frozen meals, crisps…
Aside from everyday household items, palm oil has a range of industrial and commercial applications. For instance, it can be used to produce biodiesel; the largest plant is the Finnish-operated Nestle Oil, in Singapore. Believe it.
Well, How Can I Tell If A Product Has It?
I won’t lie, it’s a hard thing to figure out. Australia – along with most of the rest of the world – has no mandatory labelling laws. This means that manufacturers can list “palm oil” in their ingredients using pretty much any terminology they like. They don’t have to be clear about whether they actually use palm oil or palm oil derivatives. This makes it very difficult for consumers to tell the difference.
As a rough guide, “vegetable oil” pretty much always means “palm oil”, unless otherwise specified. Technically, “vegetable” oil could mean oil from olives, coconuts, canola, sunflower seeds, soybean… but, because pretty much all of these alternatives cost a lot more than palm, companies will typically label them as such (and charge accordingly).
One should also look out for: vegetable fat, sodium laureate sulfate, sodium laurel sulfate, stearic acid, ceytl alcohol, and really anything with the word “palm” in it. These are the most common, but – like I said earlier – there are over 170 different words or phrases that indicate the presence of palm oil and its derivatives.
Given the difficulty of recognising all of these terms in ingredients lists, I find it easier to rely on the fine folks who do the heavy lifting for us. There are several groups doing amazing work seeking out the amazing brands and products that don’t use unsustainable palm oil. One of my favourite resources is the Palm Oil Investigations team (http://www.palmoilinvestigations.org – or look them up on Facebook); they provide handy guides, such as the one below, which can be easier to recall at the grocery store:
What Can We Do About It?
Really, the best thing is to simply familiarise yourself with which products contain palm oil, and which don’t – because the true enemy here is consumer ignorance. If you make your choice of products accordingly, it will become too expensive for companies to ignore this issue. Everyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I am a massive fan of consumer power, and it’s an ethos I carry with me every day.
Of course, it’s not always practicable – or even possible – to source a palm-oil-free product. There are companies using sustainably produced palm oil, as certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), est. 2004. Of course, there are some concerns about the true effectiveness of this organisation (allegations of “green washing” abound), but it’s certainly better than nothing. My personal rule? Certified sustainably produced palm oil is acceptable, but palm-oil-free is best.
If you want to get a bit more active – and I certainly hope you do – you can still do so without having to leave your keyboard! Write to companies and tell them you want them to use sustainably-sourced palm oil (or, preferably, none at all). A sneaky part of me would love to wage a bit of a campaign against Colgate, one of the biggest users of unsustainably produced palm oil on the planet. Or, if it’s more your style, you could write to your MP, and tell him or her that you want this country to have mandatory labelling. (Maybe mention that it’s not without precedent: beginning in 2015, food packaging in the European Union can no longer use the generic terms “vegetable oil”, or “vegetable fat”, as manufacturers will be required to list the specific type of oil, including palm. Wouldn’t that make life a lot easier for us here in Australia too?)
At the end of the day, even small choices – choosing one brand of rice cracker over another, or picking up the soap with the sustainably-sourced certification – can add up to big differences, for the orang-utans and the tigers and the amazing forests that are disappearing at an alarming rate. And, even if you decide not to support the cause, at least being able to easily identify what choice you are making when you purchase a product is definitely a win. Maybe I am a bit of a crazy hippy, caring more about animals than I do about delicious muffins, but I don’t honestly care; I would hate for future generations to look back and shake their heads at how incredibly selfish and short-sighted I was, to ignore what was happening right under my nose, with my consumer dollar.